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January 2016

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THE FORCE AWAKENS AT SKYWALKER SOUND 39 POST JANUARY 2016 ith nearly 40 years of cinema history, a die-hard diverse fan base that spans both time and globe, countless spin-offs, spoofs and robust merchandis- ing that was set to generate $3 billion in sales in 2015 alone, Star Wars is a super continent among the islands of cultural icons. Other film franchises have managed to stay relevant for decades — Jurassic Park, Mad Max, Rocky and Star Trek to name a few, but they somehow lack that infectious essence that makes grown peo- ple want to dress up like Stormtroopers or Wookiees and build working replicas of a certain astromech droid. Star Wars fandom is not limited to the general public; it's also prevalent among those with the privilege of working on the films, series and games the franchise produces. At Skywalker Sound, in Marin County, CA (, the post sound crew knows that crafting sounds for Star Wars is what the com- pany, literally, was born to do. Originally called Sprocket Systems, George Lucas established the company in 1975 when he and Gary Kurtz hired Ben Burtt specifically to handle the progressive soundtrack they imagined for the first Star Wars film. Today, Burtt is still a creative force in Star Wars sound. He's joined in the new era of Star Wars by su- pervising sound editors Matthew Wood and David Acord, and sound designer/ re-recording mixer Chris Scarabosio, who are no strangers to the Star Wars uni- verse, having worked on all three prequel films, the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, as well as on Star Wars-related games, TV movies and more. "We all have a lot of Star Wars ex- perience and it's a great thing being able to bring the fandom from our youth into the filmmaking process," says Scarabosio. As a sound supervisor, Wood focuses on the dialogue and teams up with other sound supervisors who handle the sound design, like Burtt on remastering the original trilogy for Blu-ray/DVD and cre- ating the prequels, and then with Acord on The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels TV series. Sound-wise, Acord and Wood have basically held down the franchise fort for the past 10 years. "We both have a really big understanding of what has come before in the Star Wars universe so we have a great checks-and-balances system for going forward and making sure that everything new sounds like it's in the right universe," says Wood. Early sound design work on Disney's Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a Lucasfilm production) was motivated by merchandise, notes Wood. They want- ed to make sure they had new sounds for the toys that were coming out, like Kylo Ren's lightsaber, BB-8, and new Stormtrooper vocals. "It caused early dialogues to happen about how things were going to sound, and that gave us an opportunity to work on their sound before any focus was put on it. I'm fully able to be motivated that way," confess- es Wood. The Force Awakens is filled with fran- chise fighter favorites — ships like Solo's Millennium Falcon, Imperial TIE fighters and Rebel X-wings. Acord says that how they sound in this film is the same as how audiences have known and loved, only beefier. "We added sweeteners to give them a dimension that maybe wasn't so useful in 1977, which was a lot of low- end bass frequencies. So the TIE fighter sound is the same, but now we have an added low-end element. It's the same with the X-wings. There is a heavy, throaty jet sound that was added to those on occasion," says Acord. For the Falcon, the ship sounds are a combo of classics and sweeteners, but there's been an important update to its gun. "The old Falcon gun sound just didn't match what we were trying to accomplish. The new Falcon gun sound is more percussive," says Acord. The new design combines recordings of a .50 caliber gun, captured by sound designer Gary Rydstrom, with traditional Star Wars 'pew-pew' laser elements that make it fit right in with the ship. Also from previous films are the sounds for R2-D2, originally created by Burtt using an ARP 2600 analog synth and his own voice, as well as Burtt's classic lightsaber sounds for the blue lightsaber in The Force Awakens, which have been embellished with low-end sweeteners. In the film, nemesis Kylo Ren wields a lightsaber too, but his is very differ- ent, in both look and sound. The energy flickers and jumps, like electricity arcing. It's not static; it seems unstable. "Kylo's saber is more raw sounding. It's meant to shadow his way with the force, which is crude, unrefined and dark. That is what we were going for with his lightsa- ber," explains Acord. The final sound of Kylo's lightsaber was a combination of designs by Burtt, Rydstrom and Acord. "Ben, Gary and I all sent ideas for the lightsaber to director JJ Abrams. There were ideas for the ignite, and for the steady, and the swishes. This became a dialogue with JJ about what he liked and didn't like. We converged on what was a group effort to create Kylo's lightsaber," says Acord. In detailing the lightsaber swishes he contributed, Acord says he manipulated samples of metal screeching and scrap- ing, like a metal chair on concrete, using Native Instruments Reaktor, which he then processed using a Doppler plug-in W (Top to bottom) Supervising sound editors Acord and Wood, along with re-recording mixer Scarabosio. Director JJ Abrams on set with his lead actress (left).

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